A Motorcycle Tour Around Northern California

The crew trail blazes in Northern California

Cruiser and readers go to Northern California
The Cruiser crew and some readers bonded on their tour up to Northern CaliforniaPhotography by Dean Groover

Motorcycles may embody the notion of independence. But paradoxically, they’re also the adhesive that binds us in fraternity. Regardless of what the choice means to us personally, the fact that we ride while others drive sends a strong message to the world about who we are. Sure, those who don’t ride often misunderstand the symbolism, and maybe that’s why we’re naturally drawn to the company of those who do. The five-day Motorcycle Cruiser Readers’ Ride was a perfect illustration of motorcycling’s instant alliance—the fact that most of us had never met didn’t make us strangers.

Launching the tour in Hollister, California, seemed appropriate, even though there wasn't a Wild One among us. Our group of approximately 20 people met at Mike Corbin's factory early on a Monday for a bite to eat at the on-site café. We quickly pulled chairs and tables together, which would become our version of breaking bread for the next week. Although the hefty group frazzled the staff of the 1950's-style coffee shop, hanging around Corbin's factory was a treat. And we weren't the only out-of-towners milling about the place. The factory has a while-you-wait studio where you can design a seat, watch it being made and ride away on it a few hours later (or about as long as it took us to have breakfast). The highlight of the morning was test-driving Corbin's wee Sparrows, electric three-wheeled cars, around the parking lot.

We pulled out of Hollister like a multicolored train and hung a left in Gilroy onto State Highway 152. This outstanding cut from the valley to the ocean, called Heckery Pass, ended too soon at the harried portion of Highway 1/Pacific Coast Highway, south of Santa Cruz. Once north of the city, however, the traffic was forgotten and the salty ocean breeze tickled our senses. It’s always an adjustment riding in a large crowd, so at breakfast we’d discussed staggering and suitable distances between bikes. We also talked about the importance of finding your own pace and breaking into smaller clusters when appropriate. The group worked surprisingly well together from the get-go, and by the time we reached our lunch stop in Half Moon Bay we were all feeling pretty comfy with the arrangements.

Cruiser tour of northern California at Corbin factory
20 riders made a pit stop at the Corbin factory.Photography by Dean Groover

To get to the Golden Gate Bridge you must submit to some amount of stop-and-go, so we opted for the more scenic path, which took us by the new Pacific Bell Stadium, the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf. A helluva traffic jam stopped us short on U.S. Highway 101, and by the time we reconnected with Pacific Coast Highway north of Sausalito, we were all hungering for a breath of that tranquility that wafts about the North Coast like wood smoke.

The thick blanket of fog that had blocked the sun all day finally tore in places, and the golden afternoon sunlight reflected dramatically on the blonde grass, coffee beaches and blue-green ocean. Highway 1 is a challenging road by anyone’s standards, and the scenery can be a dangerous distraction—still, we never expected so many calamities. Two of our riders rode off the highway to inspect the local drainage ditches, while another spilled lightly during a panic stop in a construction area. The group’s cheerful mood was momentarily dimmed, but by no means diminished. Even our bruised and battered road warriors were in good spirits when we arrived at our hotel. Or maybe that was later—after the Irish coffees.

It was damp and cold again when we met for breakfast at the Gualala Hotel to discuss Day Two. None of us cursed the chill—we knew the heat was waiting just over the hill. With caution being the word of the day, we headed north on Pacific Coast Highway in small groups and turned east on Mountain View Road. Although some of our riders tired quickly of its abundant corners, most of us thought this road was the cat's meow. It delivered us to Boonville, where we turned south on State Route 128 to Cloverdale and the vineyards on the northern end of Napa Valley.

Northern California motorcycle tour group
The gang's all here.Photography by Dean Groover

After lunch in Calistoga we chased Highway 29 out of town, which took us up and over beautiful Mount Saint Helena. This particular section of highway is one of my favorite roads on the planet. It sweeps back and forth in wide arcs like a crazy curly fry. Each year more traffic clogs this link between Napa Valley and Clear Lake, but mercifully, there are plenty of passing lanes. Just beyond the lake we caught Highway 20 east and spent the afternoon doing a slow burn across the Central Valley. No mishaps today, just a lot of sweat and stoplights. We sought refuge in the Sierra Foothills at the sprawling Northern Queen Inn just outside of historic Nevada City. We were getting to know each other on a deeper level at this point, and our mealtimes had become laced with a mixture of quiet divulgence and robust laughter.

One of our riders had picked up a nail in the rear tire of his Shadow A.C.E. on the way into town the evening prior, and most of us opted to stay around the hotel in the morning until a local shop could seal the deal. The ride into the high country on Highway 49 north was stunning, with the Yuba River dancing at our side. The northern portion of Highway 49 passes through some of the Gold Country’s most historic and eclectic mining towns. Downieville in particular is a pleasant stop. State Route 89 completed our northerly arch and delivered us to Truckee and a round of malts at the Truckee Diner.

Sadly, we had another man go overboard on Highway 89. One of our riders panicked when his V-Star ground metal in a sweeping corner. Unfortunately, he did exactly the wrong thing and stood the bike up, riding right off the outside of the corner. The sandy shoulder broke his fall somewhat, but a local doctor diagnosed cracked ribs and sent him home for some bed rest.

Map of Northern California and Nevada
Our route took us up the California coast, across the stateline into Nevada and through the Tahoe, Humboldt, and Stanislais National Forests.Illustration by Eiko Friedman

Ironically, another rider had family in the area and our shaken, but still smiling, friend was able to leave his mount there and hitch a ride to the airport. It was a heavy reminder of how important it is to ride within the limitations of your skill and experience. Taking an Experienced RiderCourse is the best way to redefine your ability. You can buy a little buffer also by spending some time in an empty parking lot learning to know the limits of your bike. Brakes, traction and ground clearance are the big three.

Lake Tahoe is so stunningly beautiful it draws a perennial mob, and traffic around the shoreline was grisly. The Emerald Bay Overlook offered sanctuary, if not seclusion. The view was tremendous and we lingered to watch a tourist-laden paddleboat make a lazy loop around Fanette Island. After another stint of stop-and-go through the South Shore we dropped down the backside of the Sierras to sip sodas in the dusty, diminutive town of Genoa. It was hot there, but pleasingly lonely—a brief respite from the bustle of Tahoe and the masses we would surely encounter that evening in Reno, Nevada.

From Genoa we took U.S. Highway 395 to Reno. The Biggest Little City in the World was beckoning, and we all agreed to a late morning. We split into smaller groups to seek festivity—some opted for lavish dinners, others for shows or a taste of gaming.

We had breakfast in extraordinary Virginia City the following morning and everyone was in good cheer. Back in the 1850s, this little town perched in the mountains above Reno was perhaps the most prosperous city in America. The gold and high-quality silver ore harvested from the famous Comstock Lode are said to have funded the Confederate efforts during the Civil War. Mark Twain loved this outpost too, and often wrote about Virginia City’s charms and quirks. It remains a great place to poke around and many of us had to make luggage adjustments to secure our cache.

Cruiser Northern California Tour
Our trip took us over and across a wide variety of cities, towns, terrain, and roads.Photography by Dean Groover

The rest of the day was hot and dry. Welcome to Nevada. We unanimously decided to cut some corners off the intended route. Instead of drawing a long loop south off Highway 50, we made a beeline for Hawthorne, our stopover, on the Alternate State Route 95, which skirts the banks of the eerily isolated Walker Lake.

The group was thoroughly attached by now and we were having a damn fine time together. But sadly it would be our last night as a unit, since the staff needed to return to Southern California. Several other riders who had ventured up from the Southland were also breaking off here instead of making the return pass west over the Sierras toward San Francisco. It was more than bittersweet for us to say adios to our readers, who we had such a good time getting to know.

The next morning the staff would head south, while the remainder of the group (approximately nine of us) turned north at Mono Lake on U.S. Highway 395 to investigate the 8314-foot Monitor Pass and the southern Gold Country that clings to the western slopes of the Sierras.

That night after dinner the majority of us opted to hang out in the motel parking lot in order to squeeze in as much conversation as possible. What a remarkable group. Every person on this tour fit into the enjoyable compilation. Even those who had orbited around the edges the first few days had been sucked heartily into the whole. Our occupations, lifestyles, nationalities and ages (34 to 73!) were as varied as the terrain we had covered; yet there weren’t any gaps. You have to hand it motorcycling. There are no strangers in this sport.